China 2009 = America 2001 = Rome 11 BC? → Washingtons Blog
China 2009 = America 2001 = Rome 11 BC? - Washingtons Blog

Sunday, July 5, 2009

China 2009 = America 2001 = Rome 11 BC?

One of the top experts on China's economy - Michael Pettis - has a very long but interesting essay arguing that China is blowing a giant credit bubble to avoid the global downturn.

Pettis documents reports and statistics from modern China, of course. But he ends with a must-read comparison to ancient Rome:

Let me post here a portion of Chapter 15 from Will Durant’s History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to AD 325

The famous “panic” of A.D. 33 illustrates the development and complex interdependence of banks and commerce in the Empire. Augustus had coined and spent money lavishly, on the theory that its increased circulation, low interest rates, and rising prices would stimulate business. They did; but as the process could not go on forever, a reaction set in as early as 10 B.C., when this flush minting ceased. Tiberius rebounded to the opposite theory that the most economical economy is the best. He severely limited the governmental expenditures, sharply restricted new issues of currency, and hoarded 2,700,000,000 sesterces in the Treasury.

The resulting dearth of circulating medium was made worse by the drain of money eastward in exchange for luxuries. Prices fell, interest rates rose, creditors foreclosed on debtors, debtors sued usurers, and money-lending almost ceased. The Senate tried to check the export of capital by requiring a high percentage of every senator’s fortune to be invested in Italian land; senators thereupon called in loans and foreclosed mortgages to raise cash, and the crisis rose. When the senator Publius Spinther notified the bank of Balbus and Ollius that he must withdraw 30,000,000 sesterces to comply with the new law, the firm announced its bankruptcy.

At the same time the failure of an Alexandrian firm, Seuthes and Son due to their loss of three ships laden with costly spices and the collapse of the great dyeing concern of Malchus at Tyre, led to rumors that the Roman banking house of Maximus and Vibo would be broken by their extensive loans to these firms. When its depositors began a “run” on this bank it shut its doors, and later on that day a larger bank, of the Brothers Pettius, also suspended payment. Almost simultaneously came news that great banking establishments had failed in Lyons, Carthage, Corinth, and Byzantium. One after another the banks of Rome closed. Money could be borrowed only at rates far above the legal limit. Tiberius finally met the crisis by suspending the land-investment act and distributing 100,000,000 sesterces to the banks, to be lent without interest for three years on the security of realty. Private lenders were thereby constrained to lower their interest rates, money came out of hiding, and confidence slowly re-turned.

Except for the exotic names ... and the spice-bearing ships, this story has a remarkably contemporary ring to it, as do nearly all historical accounts of financial crisis, by the way. This story is not totally relevant to China today except to the extent that it indicates how difficult it is for banking systems flush with cash to avoid speculative lending, and how the very fact of their speculative lending then creates the conditions that can bring the whole thing crashing down. Hyman Minsky told us all about this kind of thing. There has never been a political or economic system in history that has been able to avoid the consequences of excessive liquidity within the banking system. Even the Romans learned this, and they learned it the hard way, as we always do.

America's easy credit bubble started in 2001. Rome's prior to 10 BC. We know the results of both.

Is China now blowing a huge credit bubble which will lead to a giant crash down the line?

Pettis thinks so, and every Austrian economist in the world would agree.


  1. I am glad to see the historian/philosopher -Will Durant- mentioned -and advise all here who haven't educated themselves beyond what is taught in our hideously droll and archaically barbaric universities, to get an education worth something, -by reading everything Will and Ariel Durant together scribed for the library of humanity.

    Will and Ariel wrote history and philosophy candy. Will Durant was not unlike a rock star about 1920-1945. Enjoy what they wrote. It will not rot your teeth.

    University professors by-in-large are putzes, -on-the-take- -and when they assign textbooks for students to read, they unfortunately assign a lot of crap. A university isn't where anyone became well-read.

    How many here have read the twaddle -Human Action, A Treatise on Economics-? I would guess not a tenth of the professed libertarians, lest they would find themselves another idol who had something more to offer.

    As a result of a widespread ignorance -university students today generally come away as ignorant as herds of hard-on-hyenas, but with a good sense of what methamphetamine is -and needing to see a dentist in the worst way. -Idiots.

    Give me a self-taught scholar to read every time, please. I tire of mindless mumbling and incoherent university-educated twits. I generally grow irritable, and short tempered before three words escape a university-educated oral hole.

    For those who have taken the time to find out, the world did not cease to exist after the fall of the Roman empire. Quite the contrary. Does the name Medici ring a bell?

    The fall of the Roman empire represented the necessary destruction of a lot of oppressive bureaucracy.

    For those who have never studied philosophy, bureaucracies are invariably categorically immoral. They are categorically immoral because they are the near immortal creations of mortal humans that haven't a clue how to control them -other than to bring them all down with a thud, like the fall of the Roman empire, or like the sound of a head falling into a bushel basket just below the business end of a guillotine.

    So what this article has to do with economics, the state of the world, or what might be coming down the pike some time in the near or not-so-near future is beyond me. I've read too much history to see any parallel to the fall of the Roman empire.

    I'm optimistic, but not that optimistic.

    Yes, the Chinese are blowing a bubble, but it doesn't seem to be worrying Jim Rogers yet, shoo-ee-gumbo-tui!

    In a limited and qualified sort of way -Jim Rogers is no fool, - a good old boy from down on some Alabama pig farm, but not an outright fool -that might be sitting on a split-rail fence readying to fall over backwards and crack his head as he laughs at the world. Nope, not Jim. And Jim is in with both feet in China. He loves the place. He loves it for its growth potential, which he sees in China's irreversible path toward capitalism, -capitalism in an oriental sort of way, -which again if we look at history, -and what Will and Ariel Durant had to say about it, -oriental capitalism is going to be very rich, -even if it is built upon a society so stratified as to turn our American stomachs at the sight of all those pony-tailed and barefooted coolies pulling those rickshaws.

    There will never be a Chinese middle class.

    There will be Chinese oligarchs who are going to be very-very rich.

    We all live to re-live history.

    Yes, there will be a collapse of the Chinese economy. It's being engineered right now. This collapse is going to determine the strength of China as a player in the quickly evolving world economy.

    You see, when China collapses, you can bet Jim Rogers is going to be out of China. That's why he is in there now, so he knows when to get out, so he can jump right back in and ride it back up again.

    A good old boy from Alabama ain't no fool. Nope. Shoo-ee-gumbo-tui.

  2. Excellent piece. Where can I find more information on the Roman tragedy?

  3. Why are you all worrying about China? The Roman story is actually parallel to what is happening in good ol' USA right now, NOT China. Don't worry about CHina, they are upcoming economy that is already recovering while USA is still sinking and sinking fast. Wanna worry about somebody, worry about USA, NOT China. Why don't you write about USA's sorry economic conditions instead of China's?

  4. Give China and the Chinese a little credit. They've been around a while and seen empires come and go. Looks like the USA is about to be added to that list.

    We're (the USA) in deep trouble. We're heading down a path that history shows is not very pleasant. We need to take an honest and constructive look at our problems, and leave the other countries to worry about theirs.

  5. I was house sitting for the parents last week and picked this book up off their shelf. This was the chapter I had left off at last time - prior to the credit crisis and market crash. I had a lot of context by which to frame past vs. present.

    The parallels are uncanny - not unlke all bubbles though I suppose

    Nice to know I am not the only person to have picked up this masterful work in the past decade or two

  6. For Don Roberts,

    I'm a university professor, and I cut my teeth on Will and Ariel Durant as a high school student. Gross generalizations and hyperbole about universities just aren't helpful and, basically, show ignorance. There are plenty of us academics who have a clue about what's going on. You just don't hear the level-headed professors' voices over the shouts of the fanatical ones. (Oh, and it's "by and large" not "by-in-large"---unless you're going to Costco, brother!)

  7. What would this mean to American's if we was to go the way of Rome?? Will those of us that are barely paying are bills now.Loose every thing?? Even tho we would own our home would we be thrown out?? What would become of usthat used to be concidered mid. class and now would be down closer to lower class. Will they try to starve us our or??


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